I should have seen it coming… starting a year ago, when I first preached on the Blue Jays, and those CTV and CBC news crews came to church and filmed the sermon and did stories that ended up gaining media traction here in Canada, and then a month ago, when Rogers Communications discovered those stories and asked me to do an interview for a big marketing campaign they were rolling out, and then two weeks ago, when, after we did that interview, they gave me two all-expense paid trips to Toronto to see a game in the President’s Suite (with all the fixings), and then at that game when I was told that an excerpt from the interview would play on the Jumbotron mid-second inning (like my head isn’t already big enough?).
I should have seen it coming.
And it came right after that second inning cranial stretch, as I walked over to legendary Jays’ third baseman Kelly Gruber for a selfie. They say that pride hides in a blind spot, and that you never see the fall until it comes.
So there I am shaking Kelly’s hand and pulling out my phone. When I asked if it would be okay to take a selfie, he said ‘No!’… and then he kind of chided me (and all those fans who are so selfie-oriented) for always wanting to see our faces on our screens. Before he could finish what he was saying I stepped back (my pride flaring) and thought, ‘Nice guy… who needs a picture with him?’. Then I said, “Hey Kelly… don’t worry about it!” (with exactly the kind of tone you’d imagine me using), and began to walk away.
Then Kelly grabbed me by the arm and said, “No, no, no, no, no… you don’t get to do that… now you’re reacting out of your pride!” Then he went on to finish what he was saying, telling me how his whole life is filled with people who want to take selfies, and how he doesn’t want to be looking at his own face, and hearing his own voice, all the time, and how he prefers to pass the phone to a bystander to take the photo to avoid all of that unnecessary self-focus.
I can’t tell you how humbling that moment was.
Here you have a bonafide legend of the game schooling you on pride. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever learn. There I was, two minutes earlier, phone in hand, ready to capture a picture or my mug on the Jumbotron.
Kelly was so very gracious as we spoke at length later that evening, talking about our insecurities and our fears of performing before others. I suppose this battle with pride is a part of every human journey.
For me this moment was a perfectly timed parable of selflessness; tucked right in the middle of one of the most heady nights of my life.
This Sunday I’m preaching on Disney’s newest film Zootopia. It’s a perfect animated parable for our times (with all of the racism, xenophobia, and stereotyping that seems to be spinning out of control). Watch the film for homework if you get a chance.
On October 23 I’ll be preaching a sermon on the knee. This will be the first in a series of messages on the human body, funded by a John Templeton Fuller Seminary STEAM grant. Future topics will include the gut, tongue, heart, lungs, brain, muscular skeletal system, blood, immune system, and the hand (we’ve preached on the leg, kidney, epigenetics and neurons in years past).
As I begin to gear up for this knee sermon I am reminded of the complexities of preaching scientific texts (and why most pastors shy away from them). First, I needed to connect with an expert in the field and secure their involvement in the project very early on (an orthopedic surgeon in Banff is helping with this one). This happened four months ago. Second, I assembled the rest of the sermon research team (a kinesiology professor, an MD, a nursing instructor, two students from our congregation and a second theologian). This happened three months ago. Third, I had to do some pre-research in order to get an overall sense of the ‘text’ and gain an understanding of what the knee uniquely says about God. Just like when you preach bible texts, you need to get at what that text uniquely says in the broader context of the gospel message (or the human body in this case). I’m think I’m going to go with a ‘structural engineering’ focus in relation to the knee. Fourth, I spent three hours yesterday crafting the right set of exegetical questions for the orthopedic surgeon. Questions designed to unpack both the nature of the knee, and that of the surgeon/scientist herself. Fifth, I scheduled a road trip this morning. Hopefully half of our team will be driving to Banff in three weeks to meet with this surgeon to further exegete her answers to my questions. Sixth, in the weeks ahead I will continue to collect various bits of media for the sermon presentation (video and images). Yesterday a clinic in Montana said we’d have to get a license to use their material (so we’ll find another source). Seventh, I’ve just made contact with a bio-medical appliance engineer to see if she can connect me to someone who engineers the design of replacement knees (and perhaps artificial limbs). I want to talk to this person because I think that, more than anyone, they would really understand the complex (brilliant) structural nature of the knee (and how hard it is to replicate). Eighth, I’ll continue to watch knee videos and read knee Wikipedia pages and ask knee questions of other sources in the weeks ahead. Ninth, we’ll have our meeting in Banff and the surgeon will share what she knows about the knee and (I trust) several revelatory epiphany moments will occur (hopefully along the structural lines I’m pursuing). Tenth, during the week of the 23rd I’ll sit down with everything we’ve compiled and pull a 30 minute sermon out of it. As I’m doing that bible passages will present themselves (or find their place if they’ve already surfaced in the research process). The Spirit who authors all truth will whisper and guide. And God’s word in the knee will illumine God’s word in the bible (and vice versa). And hopefully, the speaker of both words, the one through whom all things were made, the Jesus who right now has two knees, will be glorified.
Image credit – Wikimedia
As I was listening to an illumining talk by reformed theologian Richard Mouw, I had one of those moments where I thought I knew the ‘very cool’ point he was about to make, which he then didn’t make, which then led me to think, very cool point John… you should write that down.
Mouw was talking about a woman who angrily confronted him after a sermon he’d given, telling him that he was wrong in saying that Jesus could empathize with all of our sufferings; that he knows how we feel. ‘I’ve just had a terrible week… so much pain in relation to my daughter… Jesus never had a daughter, so how can he relate?’ Mouw responded by noting that while Jesus indeed didn’t have a daughter, he did know what it was like to be abused, spit upon, taken advantage of, and betrayed.
And then Mouw didn’t say what I thought he was going to say… “But I think Jesus’ ability to empathize moves beyond these broad categories of suffering as well. Yes, he experienced pain directly, but perhaps he also experienced it empathetically; with a perfection that made the pain of others fully his. Maybe Jesus, more than any human being, because he loved more than any other human being, and because he was God-with-us, empathized so deeply, was so much for the abused parent he encountered, the blind man sitting at the side of the road, the childless mother’s emptiness, the rejected husband’s loss, the alienated, the depressed, the fearful, the widowed, the lost, the least and the last, that he really did fully experience their pain.”
We’ve all had moments where we’ve empathetically suffered with others to the point where it really did feel like we’d suffered the loss ourselves. Thinking back to the times when this has happened in me, I recall those moments feeling incredibly Christ-like. What if Jesus empathized like this all the time? Then surely he does know more about suffering than ‘just’ those pains which he directly endured himself.
I suppose Mouw’s angry woman could respond to this by saying that Jesus didn’t meet everyone who’s ever suffered. To which I imagine Mouw then responding, “But surely Jesus has been perfectly empathizing with everyone who’s populated his creation from the beginning of time”.
image – Rembrandt, Head of Christ (partial)
It should have been no surprise that I noticed so many ants on my walk this afternoon. I’d just finished reading Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell, where, several times, he goes on about the amazing nature of these incredible insects;
“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, rise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The families of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus gardens. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” (page 11/12)
For such gifted creatures they’re rather camera shy though. I like the slow motion video of the one cleaning its antennae.
I suppose things started to turn around when I decided to see the long road trip I was about to take as a gift. Yeah, it’s going to be a seven hour drive, but I could use the windshield time… maybe work a few things out.
I love driving alone.
For the first silent ninety minutes I just thought and prayed. After stopping for a coffee I then listened to a ‘new’ U2 ‘best of’ CD that Fran had gotten from a thrift store last week. Amazing what some good music can do for the soul. Five out of the first ten songs were songs I’d either preached on or played at church in some other context. Each one came with the memory of a theological truth. Then a song that I’ve always loved the melody of, but never really listened to, came up… and in the listening something happened in me; something new.
The song is called Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of and it felt like a back and forth conversation with God… and it lifted me up;
ME: I’m just trying to find
A decent melody
A song that I can sing
In my own company
GOD: I never thought you were a fool
But darling look at you
You gotta stand up straight
Carry your own weight
These tears are going nowhere baby
GOD: You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment
And now you can’t get out of it
ME: I will not forsake
The colors that you bring…
I am still enchanted
By the light you brought to me
I listen through your ears
Through your eyes I can see
GOD: And you are such a fool
To worry like you do
I know it’s tough
And you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need now
GOD: And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along this stony pass
It’s just a moment
This time will pass
And then this huge stone hit my brand new windshield!
And what was beautiful about that moment was what I said next. Instead of saying what I would normally have said and then being pissed off for way too long, I said ‘Screw you…’ (to the rock chip!) and kept on singing. There was nothing I could do to change the situation, and I didn’t want to step out of the song I was singing. It was too hopeful and good.
Now less than a day later I keep feeling like something has changed. Life feel freer. The beauty of this place has brought me to laughter several times already. Glimpses of glory have overwhelmed me. Last night I slept very well and woke up with an appetite. And instead of dreading the incredibly busy fall season that lies ahead I’m feeling excited and thankful. While I’m so reticent to write this down, it feels like the clouds have lifted.
This morning I read a conversation that Moses had with God;
MOSES: You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.
GOD: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
MOSES: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
GOD: “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
MOSES: “Now show me your glory…”
(excerpts from Exodus 33, NIV)
I’m not sure why. It could be the church merger, the familial worries of this past year, the strain of first time teaching, finishing the book, parenting an adult with a disability, twenty years at this job, or just plain getting old (I turned 55 this summer).
Whatever the reason, I hate the feeling. I don’t like being weak. I can’t stand feeling demotivated. The lack of discipline in this place is unsettling. I want my edge back.
I keep thinking that this is just for a season; that it will all come back. I’m sure it will. But I do still worry… and of course pray. The upside of downtimes is an awareness of your need for God. Which is probably why the Exodus story I’ve been reading this past week has felt so personal, and why every psalm I read feels like I wrote it.
Last week Fran found this 1964 photo of my maternal grandfather (‘Pake’) holding me (with my ‘Beppe’ beside him and my bother Alan on my mom’s lap).
I keep coming back to this image… a 2-1/2 year old toddler in the arms of a 65 year old man; an icon of the God who has always held me. My Pake, my dad always says, was a huge fan of the theologian Abraham Kuyper (with his huge view of God, creation, providence and revelation). Loving Kuyper’s worldview as much as I do right right now I often wish I could talk to my grandfather about him.
Looking at the photo I’m reminded of my Pake’s huge hands. I’d totally forgot about them. He was a baker and always carried about him a kind of innate strength. He immigrated to Canada at aged 52 and started over! His faith (I’m told) was unshakeable.
I want to be like him.
This morning I read these New Testament words;
“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, NIV
The words, eternal encouragement stuck out for me. I was reminded of the true nature of my life; known by God before the universe came to be and created to know God forever. That perspective puts things in perspective. The encouragement I need today is connected to an eternal encouragement that God has spoken into my life, and calling.
For now, that is more than enough.
“As we have heard, so we have seen” Psalm 48:8, NIV
Reading these words this morning I am struck by how succinctly they encapsulate the vision God has given our church.
After naming how God’s power has protected his people in the past (in verses 3-7), the writer pens words that connect God then to God now; God heard about to God seen. God then (in the bible) and God now (in our lives today). God heard about (through written and spoken words) to God seen (with your own eyes). God described to God experienced. God known cognitively to God known via all of your senses (touched, felt, incarnate).
At the end of the book of Job, God answers all of Job’s existential questions by revealing himself through the mysterious wonders of nature (God’s answer to Job’s pain filled queries came from the book of creation!), leading Job to conclude, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” Job 42:5, NIV.
This is what our church is all about; seeing what you’ve always heard about. God everywhere present. Jesus standing right in front of you.
image – By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
For the past six weeks I’ve been saying to myself, ‘But what if we don’t get the grant?’ Now that we’ve been awarded the grant I’m thinking, ‘Oh no… we got the grant!’
The proposal we submitted was pretty fulsome; eight sermons on various human body parts, the development of a Lectio Scientia (a ‘way’ for scientists to engage God at work), the inclusion of dozens of doctors, biologists, researchers, students and local pastors in the research process, attending and presenting at two conferences, and the writing of a book.
This week I began reviewing all of the quotes/thoughts re: science and faith that I’ve been accumulating over the years. So much good stuff for this project, like this quote,
“When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.” (McMullin, Ernan. “Plantinga’s Defense of Special Creation.” Christian Scholar’s Review XXI.1 (1991): 55-79. as quoted by Rich Mouw in http://biologos.org/…/learning-to-celebrate-creation-togeth… )
I took the idea further and thought that if we’re all made of stardust, then Jesus took on the universe when he took on a human body.
Then, as I was re-reading Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence, I realized that perhaps the best way to know an embodied Jesus is through the whole of our physical bodies. Yes, we can know him through words (read and heard), but can we also know him through our hands, eyes, knees and lungs (touched, seen, moved through and breathed in)? What would a full embodied engagement with Jesus look like?
Then I wrote a fully formed paragraph for my book introduction… and then some of the outline started to become clear. Then a conclusion presented itself and two pastors emailed saying they’d like to be a part of the project.
Then I realized that God has this whole thing in hand. And I am so excited for the year that lies ahead.